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Explained: Two contentious laws, opposed by the US, that shook Poland’s ruling coalition

The Polish parliament has passed two Bills that make changes to media ownership rules and to property restitution laws for Holocaust survivors, attracting criticism from the US and the EU, and sparking protests across the country.

Written by Sonal Gupta , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 13, 2021 11:22:30 am
Prozna Street, in the heart of what was Warsaw's Jewish quarter before World War II, in Warsaw, Poland. (AP Photo)

Poland’s right-wing ruling coalition is facing backlash across the world and within after two contentious bills were passed in the Parliament. Following a dispute over one of the bills, the Law and Justice (PiS) party-led government expelled the deputy prime minister, losing its Parliamentary majority.

The deputy prime minister, Jaroslaw Gowin, was at odds with the Union Right coalition over issues including tax reforms, and a draft amendment to the Broadcasting Act that could silence a US-based media channel critical of the government. The move cost the PiS 13 MPs of the Gowin-led ally, Accord.

Despite losing its majority, the coalition managed to pass the media bill through the lower house of the Parliament (Sejm), sparking protests across the country for ‘Free Media.’

Earlier, both the lower and upper house (Senate) of the Parliament had passed yet another controversial law, which seeks to change the rules for property restitution in the country. Critics say that the legislation will make it harder for Jews to recover property seized by Poland’s Nazi occupiers during the Second World War.

A look at the bills and why they are being opposed, one by one.

‘An attack on media independence’

On Wednesday, the Sejm approved a draft legislation that seeks to prevent non-European owners from having controlling stakes in Polish media companies. In effect, the move will force the US-based Discovery Inc to sell its stake in the country’s largest private television network, TVN.

The opposition to the bill views the amendment as a way to silence TVN24, the group’s news channel, which has often been critical of the right-wing government. Following the bill’s passage through Sejm, the TVN24 released a statement, calling it “an unprecedented attack on freedom of speech and media independence.”

The news channel urged the Senate and President Andrzej Duda to reject the draft, stating that the bill undermines property rights in the country, “causing concern for foreign investors in Poland.” “It undoubtedly also undermines the foundations of the Polish-American alliance built over the last 30 years,” the statement read.

The draft legislation must be approved by the Senate, where the Opposition enjoys a slight majority, before being returned to the Sejm that can choose to accept changes made by the Upper House. It must then be signed by the President to become the law.

People protest outside the Polish parliament after lawmakers passed a bill seen as harmful to media freedom in Warsaw, Poland. (AP Photo)

The legislation was passed in the lower house with a slight majority of 228 over 216, according to news agency AP.

Since the introduction of the bill, the people across Poland have been demanding that lawmakers reject the draft. On August 10, a day before the Parliament was to vote on the legislation, thousands of people in around 80 towns and cities came out raising slogans like, “Free Media, Free People, Free Poland.”

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‘Damages memory of Holocaust’

On Wednesday, the Parliament passed another legislation that changes the property restitution law in the country, which directly impacts Holocaust survivors in reclaiming properties taken away under the communist regime during the second world war.

The amendment brings in a 2015 Constitutional Tribunal ruling which prevents property ownership and other administrative decisions from being challenged after a deadline of 30 years. The ruling has an impact on both Jewish and non-Jewish property-owners.

The draft legislation has been passed through both the Sejm and Senate and seeks the approval of the President.

Here’s an explainer on how the law will affect Jewish families, who have been campaigning for decades for compensation and for the return of the property stolen by the post-war Communist government.

The move has been condemned by Israel. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Wednesday tweeted that the legislation “harms the memory of the Holocaust and the rights of its victims.”

“I will continue to oppose any attempt to rewrite history, and to promote compromises and concessions at the expense of the Jewish people and the rights of Holocaust victims. Poland knows what is the right thing to do, repeal the law,” he said in a series of tweets.

Speaker of the Knesset, Mickey Levy, also tweeted he had “decided not to establish the inter-parliamentary friendship group between Poland and Israel” and called upon the Polish President to veto it.

What do the US and the EU say?

The United States and the European Union have been vocal in their criticism of the laws being passed in Poland’s Parliament.

David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament, took to Twitter to express concern over the media bill. “The vote yesterday evening on the media law in Poland is very worrying. If the law comes into force, it will seriously threaten independent television in the country. There can be no freedom without a free media,” he stated.

The US, too, has urged the President to veto the property restitution bill or refer it to Poland’s constitutional tribunal. It also condemned the media bill, stating that it “threatens media freedom and could undermine Poland’s strong investment climate.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Antony J Blinken, US Secretary of State, said that the “United States is also deeply troubled by draft legislation passed today by the lower house of the Polish parliament that targets the most watched independent news station, which is also one of the largest US investments in the country.”

“Poland is an important NATO Ally that understands the Transatlantic Alliance is based on mutual commitments to shared democratic values and prosperity. These pieces of legislation run counter to the principles and values for which modern, democratic nations stand,” the statement read.

In fact, the expelled deputy prime minister was quoted as saying by The Guardian that the bill will “push us toward a confrontation with the United States, which is our most important ally from the point of view of defense.”

It’s also pertinent to note that Poland currently ranks 64 in the World Press Freedom Index, a drastic fall from its position at number 18 in 2015, the year the PiS came in power.

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What’s the government’s defence?

The government has defended both the legislations.

The ruling coalition denied that the media bill is aimed at a singular media channel and stated that it is bringing in rules similar to those in other European Union countries, like France and Greece. “We have the right to regulate questions about capital in a way the Polish parliament deems appropriate,” Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller was quoted as saying by Reuters.

In a press conference Tuesday, prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated that the law seeks to protect the national security interests of Poland as “it is through the media that other countries influence our social life.” According to AP, he alleged that foreign entities were trying to influence Poland’s debate on Covid-19 vaccinations and also cited risks of Russia and China taking over the media.

Poland has also put forth a need for changes in the restitution process to curb “fraud and irregularities,” which have led to evictions and “wild re-privatisation.”

Morawiecki Thursday dismissed US’ apprehensions regarding both the bills, stating that the amendment to the Broadcasting Act is “just about tightening the regulations.” On the US criticism over the property restitution bill, he stated, “this has nothing to do with the fears expressed by our American friends about us.”

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